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6-minute read

Improve Feedlot Success With Beef Cattle Backgrounding Program

Group of stockers in a pasture.
Dr. Chris Ashworth, DVM

Global RNS Species Leader – Beef
Zinpro Corporation

In today’s beef cattle industry, calves are often separated from their dams without having an adequate weaning period prior to marketing and being transported to a feedlot, stocker or other facility. This can result in high levels of stress for calves and cause subsequent health issues that may hinder growth performance and increase morbidity and mortality.

Having calves go through a beef cattle backgrounding program before they enter the feedlot may help mitigate many of these problems before the calves enter the feedlot. Backgrounding is an interim program for calves following weaning and before they enter the feedlot. The primary purposes of a backgrounding facility are to allow for additional growth and to help minimize the stress that accompanies weaning and transportation, with the goal of making calves more resilient before they enter the feedlot.

Backgrounding programs typically last 45 to 90 days, with the primary goal of allowing the animals to grow at a moderate rate, about two pounds per day.

Benefits of a Beef Cattle Backgrounding Program

Cow-calf producers who plan to retain ownership of their calves after weaning may background them on the home ranch, while those who purchase cattle for a large feedlot operation may opt to send their cattle to a beef cattle backgrounding facility first.

Backgrounding facilities are generally smaller than commercial feedlots, making it easier to mitigate weaning stress and manage potential health issues more effectively. For higher-risk calves, a backgrounding facility may provide a lower-stress environment with the opportunity for more personal attention to identify and treat potential health problems. Backgrounding facilities also provide calves with an opportunity for better nutritional intake to alleviate weaning and transportation stress, as well as other health issues. Bovine respiratory disease (BRD) and coccidiosis are two of the primary diseases which calves, particularly those with a higher-risk profile, are susceptible to upon being received into a backgrounding or commercial feeding facility. Depending on the number of higher-risk calves being received, the timeframe in which they are received, and the environmental conditions encountered, the incidence of these and other health issues can be greatly increased, exceeding the personnel and facilities required to adequately deal with these conditions. In this situation, even lower-risk cattle can become high-risk. For this reason, placing calves in a backgrounding facility may be a viable option. 

Weaning is Critical to Successful Beef Cattle Backgrounding

Weaning is one of the most stressful times in the life of a calf. Minimizing stressors can have a significant positive effect on their health and productivity. To do this, all potential sources of stress — primarily physical and physiological, as well as psychological — must be considered. Decreasing the duration and intensity of stress to which calves are exposed is key to increasing resilience to disease challenges. Overcrowding is a serious stressor that should be limited in order to maximize health.  

Calves should be weaned for at least 45 days before marketing or shipping to a beef cattle backgrounding facility; however, research shows that health and other outcomes may be better in the feedlot if they are weaned for 60 days.

During the weaning process, calves should adapt to eating from a feed bunk and drinking from a water tank as they will in the feedlot. Generally, this is also a good time to vaccinate calves to allow for their immunity to develop. However, to allow for optimal development of immune function, it is important to ensure that calves are provided a balanced beef cattle nutrition program, including optimal levels and sources of trace mineral supplementation.

Learn More: Performance Trace Mineral Supplementation Improves Calf Weaning

Spreading the duration and intensity of stress to which calves are subjected over 45 to 60 days can help calves become more resilient from an immunity and nutrition standpoint. This helps to drive overall improved health and productivity during beef cattle backgrounding and in the feedlot.

Beef Cattle Nutrition Requirements for Successful Backgrounding

Ensure good water intake

Water is the most critical nutrient and should be a primary concern once calves enter a beef cattle backgrounding facility or feedlot. Because of marketing and transport, calves are subject to varying degrees of dehydration (aka shrink). It is important to make sure calves drink water during the first three to six hours after arrival to help them rehydrate, restore rumen function and increase feed intake. Having a clean and palatable water source which is readily accessible to the majority of animals in the pen without excessive waiting to drink is an important consideration.

Feed performance trace minerals

About 40%–50% of cow-calf operations never feed supplemental trace minerals, so a backgrounding facility could be the first time a calf receives performance trace minerals in their diet consistently. When calves arrive in a backgrounding facility, their feed intake will likely be low, leaving them in a nutrient-compromised state.

Zinpro Performance Minerals® are more bioavailable than inorganic minerals and will be better absorbed by the calves, despite reduced feed intake. Consider supplementing your backgrounding diet with performance trace minerals from Availa®4 at the researched level of 7 grams per day.

Learn More: Importance of Supplementing Performance Trace Minerals Year-Round in Beef Nutrition

Pro Tips for Beef Cattle Backgrounding Management

Avoid overcrowding

Ensure that cattle have enough space at the feed bunk and have their own space apart from unfamiliar animals. You should have enough space so that if a calf has BRD, they are not spreading it to other cattle in the beef cattle backgrounding facility.

Use clean needles

Reusing needles may be the industry standard, but you can still spread a variety of diseases and health issues with needles. All treatments and vaccines should be administered with single-use needles.

For more information, review the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program. The BQA covers proper needle use as well as proper vaccine and medicine treatment administration techniques.

Vaccinate during weaning

The earlier calves can build an immunity titer against primary pathogens, the more resilient their immune systems will be later on. If they receive their first vaccination in the beef cattle backgrounding facility after enduring weaning and transportation stress, they may not have the best response to a vaccine. If they are vaccinated a second time at the backgrounding facility, it will act as a reinforcement of resiliency against harmful pathogens.

Preparing Calves for Feedlot Productivity

Calves endure a tremendous amount of stress at the time of weaning, and it can hinder their feedlot performance if improperly managed. With a successful backgrounding program, you can ensure that your calves enter the feedlot with a minimal amount of stress and health issues and can sustain healthy growth and production through finishing.

To learn more about managing your beef cattle backgrounding program and supplementing your calves’ diets with performance trace minerals, contact your Zinpro representative today.

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